“In spirit” – with one’s emotional commitment and heart’s deepest sincerity (Romans 9:1). “In truth” – authorized in scripture (Colossians 3:17). Please understand that these principles are in the text, but I believe there is much more to the Lord’s statements in this text.
It has been somewhat concerning to me that we may be superficially proof-texting the passage to answer biblical arguments rather than carefully interpreting the immediate context of scripture. Can we really dissect as distinguishable concepts “in truth” and “in spirit”? Is it not true that to worship God “in spirit” is to worship him “in truth” and to worship him “in truth” is to worship him “in spirit”? I believe this very point reveals there may be more to the verses under consideration.
The once concept of the phrase emphasizes the spiritual nature of true worship: The Samaritan woman had been taught that worship of God was dependent on an external, i.e. physical location, namely, Mount Gerizim (John 4:5- 6, 12, 20; Deuteronomy 27:11). She was mistaken, for Jerusalem was the center of worship under the First Covenant (4:22). To her worship was absorbed and centered on the externals – “Jerusalem” or “This Mountain,” etc.
The once concept of the phrase emphasizes the spiritual nature of true worship: Externals Under O.T. were physical manifestations of the spiritual: Some have made the mistake of defining religious externals under the Old Covenant as an “empty ritual,” yet nothing could be further from the truth. While even her religious externals were faulty in claiming access to the spiritual, i.e. “Jacob’s well” and “Mount Gerizim,” the externals under the O.T. were not faulty, i.e. “salvation is of the Jews.”
The once concept of the phrase emphasizes the spiritual nature of true worship: Externals Under O.T. were physical manifestations of the spiritual: The types and shadows of the Old Law appealed to the physical senses in order to foreshadow and typify the spiritual reality. The heart of the Law was “spiritual” (Romans 7:14), but the means of the Law pointing toward the spiritual was an appeal to the physical senses (Hebrews 8:4-5; 9:1-14, 23-24; 10:1). It is in this sense that the Old Law served only as a “tutor” or “schoolmaster” to bring us unto Christ (Galatians 3:25). Worship through externals is not the highest form of worship.
Worshipping God “in spirit” identifies the nature of worship whereby we may commune with God, who is a Spirit. God’s nature, i.e. “Spirit” dictates the requirement of true worship through which we may commune with Him (Acts 17:29). Worship through “externals,” i.e. through types and shadows is not the highest form of worship, however worship of the Father through the Son (reality) would be “in spirit and in truth.”
Albert Barnes writes, “The word ‘spirit,’ here, stands opposed to rites and ceremonies, and to the pomp of external worship. It refers to the “mind,” the “soul,” the “heart.” They shall worship God with a sincere “mind;” with the simple offering of gratitude and prayer; with a desire to glorify him, and without external pomp and splendor. Spiritual worship is that where the heart is offered to God, and where we do not depend on external forms for acceptance…”
“The Father seeketh...” - “Jesus gives two reasons why this kind of worship should take place. One is that God sought it, or desired it. He had appointed the old mode, but he did it because he sought to lead the mind to himself even by those forms, and to prepare the people for the purer system of the gospel, and now he sought or desired that those who worshipped him should worship him in that manner. He intimated his will by Jesus Christ.”
“But ‘spirit’ here does not refer to the Holy Spirit, but the spirit of man – that part of man’s constitution through which he bears the image of God…the worship in spirit is worship contrasted with all mere carnal…shadows of the good things to come, all mere ritual, all specialties of place, or time…It need not be in despite of a genuine reverence for days, or seasons or postures or washings and they, without this, will be eventually valueless…Only the spirit of man can really touch or commune with the Spirit of spirits and the history of the new dispensation is the history of a progress from forms to realities, from the earthly to the heavenly” (Pulpit Commentary, p. 169, 170).
Why would one who has such direct access to God without the externals want to return to such (Galatians 4:9-10). Therefore, Christ is trying to get the Samaritan woman to see that there is a more intimate and higher form of worship which God has in mind through Christ that removes the physical limitations and prejudices she has in mind. Circumcision in the O.T. was a type of the circumcision of the heart (Acts 7:51) and a “sign of the covenant” (Romans 4:11). Yet under the New Covenant physical circumcision is not a requirement, whereas, the circumcision of the heart is mandatory (Romans 2:28-29; Galatians 6:15).
In contrast to animal sacrifices we offer “spiritual sacrifices” in the “spiritual house” of God (I Peter 2:5). Indeed we have come to a “mountain that cannot be touched” (Hebrews 12:18), which is described as “heavenly Jerusalem” (12:22) – the “Kingdom” which is “not of this world” (John 18:36). While the New Covenant presents physical expressions of the spiritual it does not present external forms which point toward the spiritual.
“Truth” references a direct approach God through His Son Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:11-13, 18, 22), i.e. this is the spiritual sphere where we worship God. Notice how the term “truth” is used predominately to refer to Christ Himself being the revelation of and embodiment of truth (John 1:14, 17; 4:23, 24; 5:33; 6:14; 7:40; 8:32, 40, 45, 46-47; 14:6; 16:7-14; 18:36-38).
“In truth - Not through the medium of shadows and types, not by means of sacrifices and bloody offerings, but in the manner represented or typified by all these, Heb_9:9, Heb_9:24. In the true way of direct access to God through Jesus Christ.”
“‘And in truth’ i.e. as dealing with reality, the adequate and veracious expression of genuine desires… Forms…ceremonies…are all inefficacious…and they can all be dispensed with if need be…” (Pulpit Commentary).